Greater City Providence

Barry Schiller: Providence Streetcar on Life Support?

Dark Road

Photo (cc) José Mamona

Barry Schiller, a retired Rhode Island College math professor, is a long-time member of the State Planning Council’s Transportation Advisory Committee. He also was on the RIPTA Board of Directors 1995-1999.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that prospects for building the proposed College Hill – Hospitals/South Providence streetcar, a $127 million project, are fading.

RIPTA itself has clearly stated they won’t fund the project out of their existing revenue stream, already inadequate for maintaining its bus system. Their initial proposal for the next four year TIP (Transportation Improvement Program) being developed did suggest $2.5 million in FY2013 for the streetcar’s next phase of preliminary engineering an design. This is only about 1/3 the cost, the rest to be paid for by someone else. But since expected capital funds were inadequate for their original plan, RIPTA then modified this proposal to allocate only $1.5 million on streetcar design spread out later over 2014 and 2015. RIPTA understandably does not want to spend any more money on this unless the political process comes up with a funding source to design, build, and operate the streetcar. Indeed it seems there must be a financial plan to do this to get any more Federal dollars for this project. But the city of Providence, its big institutions, local property owners, and the state and Federal governments are all under financial stress and I see little prospect that any of them will step up to pay for the streetcar in any big way.

My take on the streetcar at last week’s RIPTA Board meeting is that RIPTA leaders expect to conclude the corridor study by selecting the streetcar as the locally preferred alternative, but then it will likely just sit there until there is a funding mechanism. Further diminishing its prospects is the resignation of Thomas Deller, as Chair of the RIPTA Board of Directors, which removes the foremost streetcar advocate from a position of leadership at RIPTA.

The streetcar’s route for the most part is duplicated by existing Route 42 – 1 Hope-Eddy bus service, so the project is more about economic development than serving transit needs. Thus it should be noted the core corridor study has released an economic analysis. It did surprise me how much vacant or underutilized land is available for redevelopment along its route, and the study estimates that based on experience elsewhere, modified by Rhode Island conditions, the streetcar will eventually generate an additional 3.6 million square feet of economic development and 5,750 additional jobs. The projected rate of return on investment is 9 to 1, which sounds good but is far below the 34 to 1 ratio in Portland OR or even 29 to 1 in Kenosha, 19 to 1 in Memphis. There is no mention of Buffalo NY where a Wall St Journal column about its difficulties noted that a streetcar project there totally failed to help its economy.

My conclusion is that if there is anyone seriously advocating for implementing this project anytime soon, they have a lot of work to do.

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  • As I understand it, one of the reasons a streetcar is believed to generate more economic development than a bus is that it is an investment that is somewhat permanent – a commitment to the businesses along the route. Laying track is awfully expensive though. I wonder if you did something like take the 99 bus and replace it with high capacity buses that can run on overhead lines or internal diesel. This would be a sort of trackless trolley similar to Boston’s silver line. Such a trolley could benefit from off board ticketing and traffic signal control systems already planned by RIPTA for this route. More money could be invested in nice stations at key points which would further the commitment to merchants in the area and provide better way of doing off board ticketing. The route is already heavily traveled and runs very frequently but there is a lot of good,underutilized land along North Main St. With the diesel, the bus could continue on to Pawtucket as it does now. The question is, could wires, much bigger and impressive looking buses and a few nice stations along North Main St. have a comparable economic development impetus for significantly less cost than a track system?

  • I for one think Jeff’s question above is quite reasonable, but one consequence of putting so much energy into the streetcar proposal was the lack of a serious look and discussion of enhanced bus alternatives. Thus it seems all too likely that nothing will actually come of of this study.

    As Jeff noted about the #99-11 line (Broad St, North Main) RIPTA already has plans to enhance that line and further incremental improvements are always possible. But I doubt it will get much attention for economic inpact compared to the streetcar’s intended audience of the college-medical world as I would guess the 99 -11 route may be seen as too low income a corridor to inspire development. Indeed, the latest I heard about the Pawtucket bus hub is that it may be relocated away from the Visitor Center – to somewhere where (although passengers would lose an indoor waiting room) the concentation of low income riders would not hinder economic redevelopment of the Visitor Center area.

  • I wasn’t really thinking of the Pawtucket end as much of a draw, only that it’s more cost effective since RIPTA must serve it anyway. North Main in Providence has so much potential and the 99-1 also passes very close to the train station. I would envision residential development there. Where else you live an easy bus ride to the train to Boston and be 2 minutes off the highway? Real estate along Boston commuter lines is still mostly pretty expensive. Even if initially the people who live there work in Boston, it is still tax base and eventually some will become entrepreneurs and start businesses here. The residential could be followed by retail and medical development could continue. Just look at the Sears/Shaws land alone – so much land.

    I guess I’m dreaming again! Would like to see Providence take it up a notch.

  • You also have to mention the fact that there is already a very large residential community off of North Main street that avoids public transit options because buses frankly aren’t as sexy as a street rail. If the line was to be built, my prediction would be that North Main street would see more development progress than the 195 land. Of course, this conversation is about how large a hill this battle has to be fought up.
    I had a conversation earlier today where it was brought up that Occupy Providence was able to negotiate a daytime shelter, but the community that is savvy to how this line would boost the city’s tax revenue and standard of living has only been able to talk about it and have meetings about how it may or may not be feasible over the past decade. The fact that Thom Deller stepping down from his post is a major blow to the possibility of a street rail project just goes to show how little has been accomplished in terms of galvanizing popular demand for such a service. I don’t see how there hasn’t been any outreach to the community at Charlesgate, Benificient House, the property owners of the empty lots along North Main and Eddy street, or anybody else that would directly benefit from this project. At the end of the day, what gets politicians to move on issues is pressure from their constituents, which there has been very little of. Anybody that is reading this already knows how much we have to gain from starting a street rail system, but how many phone calls are representatives getting about it? How many emails is the governor getting? Little to none. That’s the biggest obstacle. Occupy got a shelter opened in months, how many excuses can there be for this conversation to remain only conversation for another decade?

  • Our federal delegation should find the god damned money to do this. And interesting, at meetings at the inception of the streetcar plans the costs was estimated to be $60 to $70 million.

    I say this, if you can spend umpteen billion dollars burying a highway in MA, you can allocate a single billion dollars for fixed public transit infrastructure in Providence and the surrounding area.

  • The current configurations of the 1/42 or 11/99 bus route combinations wouldn’t have the same impact as the proposed core connector streetcar.

    If the 1/42 combination were rerouted to follow the proposed core connector route and headway times were improved, from current 20-minutes to an hour, to every 10-minutes or less, the 1/42 could substitute as a bus variation for a downtown circulator. If full funding for engineering, construction, and operations can’t be obtained for the streetcar, hopefully funds could be found to increase the schedule for a single bus route the 1/42.

    The streetcar proposal is both about improved high-quality mass transit and real estate development. It would be an unfortunate fumble to lose much of the potential development by eliminating rail. It would be completely foolhardy to do nothing at all and rely on existing bus system unimproved, which works now for commuters and not well for circulating within downtown.

    Assuming that Barry Schiller’s assessment is correct, perhaps there’s an opportunity to develop multiple rapid bus routes downtown. Besides the 1/42 and 11/99 a third route to Olneyville/Manton should be considered. There’s almost a rapid route heading north on Charles Street today. There could be others. Stations, branding, and marketing would be critical for a bus solution to succeed.

    It’s amazing that over $400 million could be spent on Quonset roads and rail and that the proposed Route 4 interchange will cost $75 million and the Providence viaduct replacement will be $140 million plus, while finding funds for the streetcar appear to be near impossible.

  • So lets play a game. You’re on an elevator with a policy maker/legislator (Federal, State, Local, or other) who has the ability to make streetcars in Providence happen. You have to make a pitch on why they should support streetcars in Providence before the elevator ride is over. What would you say?

    Let’s make it an elevator ride on a tall skyscraper, to keep it reasonable.

  • The supposed diminishing possibility of a PVD streetcar has really pissed me off. It’s kind of crazy that we might not be able to make this happen… It got me thinking about just how powerless we are to make a difference in the city, and it makes me want to do something.

    Here’s an idea: Providence has organizations like the Providence Preservation Society, which advocates for preserving the rich architectural history of PVD. Without PPS, even more of it would be paved over than it already is. Why is it that we don’t have an organization whose mission is to advocate for a more pedestrian/bike friendly PVD? GCPVD certainly has the right idea; but is there a way to kick it up a notch by building an organization, composed of a coalition of people dedicated to turning Providence into a more bike-centric /pedestrian City? How about we make a GCPVD Super Pac, Colbert style?

  • For what it’s worth, I’d be willing to invest time, money, and know-how (of which I have little, less, and far less) to a more organized community around these issues.

  • BicycleFace and Jason – There are people who are doing what they can in this space, but there is also always room for more people to participate and drive this. If you want something changed, as often as not, you have to participate in that change, if not lead it.

    There is a an informal group of people working on a proposal to put before the mayor to have a Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee created. Unknown if/when this will happen.

    There is the Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition, which advocates at the state level principally, and participates when time and interest allows its volunteers in tackle specific local issues. Want to get involved and support that effort, come to a monthly meeting ( or contact the group directly (

  • I’d be interested to be a part of the discussions regarding the Bike Pedestrian Advocacy Group. I’d like to get involved, but feel like I’m looking for something focused on Providence, not all of RI. In my experience, the more localized the effort and focus, the more likely there can be real change. Also, it seems to me that cities, and Providence specifically, require a different approach than more suburban communities.

    I will say, however, that like minded people and organizations should be more organized. And there needs to be money behind it.

  • I believe RIPTA and the City are pretty much set on declaring the streetcar the “locally preferred alternative.” With that declaration, we can then seek federal funding. If we do not get federal funding and/or cannot identify local funding needed in addition to the federal funding, then we may need to reassess the project.

    If we can’t secure funding, then we need to figure out what to do next. A different mode, nothing..?